Thursday, January 08, 2009

CPSC "clarifies" thrift store "exemption"

Everyone's getting excited because the CPSC issued a statement on a supposed exemption for thrift stores. Thrift stores don't have to test used items, but if they sell lead-tainted goods they will be cracked down upon:
The new safety law does not require resellers to test children’s products in inventory for compliance with the lead limit before they are sold. However, resellers cannot sell children’s products that exceed the lead limit and therefore should avoid products that are likely to have lead content, unless they have testing or other information to indicate the products being sold have less than the new limit. Those resellers that do sell products in violation of the new limits could face civil and/or criminal penalties.
So basically, thrift stores supposedly get a pass-- or do they?

See, there's two ways you can be "required" to do something. One way is to be told "you are required to do this." The other way is to be told "you are not required to do this, but if you don't, we will _______" where _______ is some adverse consequence you really, really would not want. They do car insurance this way in New Hampshire, or at least they did when I lived there. You were not required to carry proof of car insurance like you are in most states. However, if you got into an accident and you didn't have proof of insurance, you'd be subject to a horrendously large fine. So long as you never left the state and didn't get into an accident, you weren't "required" to have car insurance! Needless to say, very few people chose to take the bet.

Suppose you're a thrift store owner and you read the "guidance" I've quoted above. So now you have to think about what you want to carry. You can carry anything you want, so long as it hasn't been recalled and doesn't contain lead. So when somebody brings in that used set of blocks, you don't have to test it; but you'll think about how long it'll take to look up on the internet whether it's been recalled, and think about how likely the paint is to have lead, and how little profit you might get from it, and whether your competitor wants you out of business badly enough to sneak a lead test kit into your store and swipe it along the paint, then report you to the CPSC... and maybe you'll take a pass on that block set. Resellers get hundreds of different brands of used items in their store. They're not "required" to check each and every one to see if it's been recalled or been tested for lead, but with their business at stake, why would they chance it? How much employee time will that take, and what will the cost of that add to their bottom line?

Result: resale stores may still carry kids' clothing, but jewelry, toys and furniture may be too chancy for their tastes. I imagine clothing doesn't account for much profit, given how cheaply they have to sell it to compete with new imported clothing. And from what I understand, resale shops operate on a pretty thin margin. Making it any thinner will put them out of business, whether they're "required" to go out of business or not.

Another point: many kids' resale shops also sell new products. I've seen children's resale stores carry new hair ribbons, barrettes, jewelry, handmade toys and clothes, and nursery decor. Just because they also sell used items, do they get a pass on making sure the new goods are lead-free? If they do get a pass in the name of practicality, why don't retailers get a pass too? And if they don't get a pass, how is this an "exemption?"

And yet another: who is a "reseller"? a lot of kids' items are sold used on eBay by private parties. Are they "resellers" under the law? A store that carries unused items that they bought as surplus from retailers who couldn't sell them, are they a retailer or a reseller? If a store owner buys his merchandise from a distributor, is he a reseller? If you sew a missing button on a donated pair of used kids' pants and then put them out for sale, are you a reseller or a manufacturer? What if you add Swarovski crystals to the pants pocket?

The CPSC must think the public will shut up and go away if they make us think they've exempted thrift stores. They can see that thrift stores are a bridge too far for the American public, so they're hoping that if they can make the thrift store problem go away, they will be safe from the public's wrath. Let's hope the public sees through this plan and doesn't take the bait.